'How Technology Helps us Know Our Learners' first posted in "Effective Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age" on October 8th, 2015
To be effective educators, we must know our students. An obvious statement, but something that we need to focus on nonetheless. Beyond the necessary elements of creating a welcoming, positive, inclusive and accepting learning environment we must also build rapport with our students on a personal level. Once we have these basics covered (and they are always a work in progress) it's time to work on understanding our learners through assessment. "Knowing our learners" through meaningful assessment is an area of focus for several boards, including the DPCDSB, of which I am a part. How can technology help us to be more effective in getting to know our learners? First of all, we draw upon the reality that, with today's technology, we simply can't limit our students to paper pencil tasks.
If we want to get the most accurate and fair evaluation and expression of what our students know, and who they are, we will have to find ways to implement technology in deliberate and meaningful ways. As a special education teacher I am drawn to digital tools that bridge the gap for students who have severe difficulty demonstrating their learning with traditional methods, but all learners can benefit from the chance to express themselves and their learnings through digital tools.
If you aren't already familiar with it, the SAMR model, designed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, helps us to articulate what we are actually doing (or can be doing) with our deliberate use of technology. - Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition -
While the team members continue to tweet their experiences (follow us @HCTLLP) en route to writing blog posts that chronicle their classroom experiences, I'll regularly highlight some of the most successful instances of technology implementation from my role as a Special Education Resource Teacher, past and present- please note that I'll be using pseudonyms for my students' names.
This first experience really opened my eyes to the potential that digital tools have in unlocking our students' potential.
Success #1 - Anna: Anna was a grade 8 student who had been on an IEP for several years. Anna was working with grade 3 expectations in language and grade 4 expectations in mathematics and these significant modifications troubled me as her new SERT, several years ago. Early on in the school year, the classroom teacher and I looked at Anna's written work and had to agree that based on her paper-pencil work, Anna's IEP seemed accurate for writing. When we read together, Anna's decoding difficulties presented themselves and the cognitive energy she spent trying to decode drained her capacity for comprehension. Without digital tools, it was fair to say that Anna could only access the curriculum at the late primary or early junior level.
Much later on in the school year, after receiving some training for Kurzweil, I decided that I'd use the text-to-speech software for Anna's next reading assessment and that she would have the same assessment as her grade 8 peers. The software would also allow Anna to type her responses. When the assessment came, Anna was reluctant at first - she didn't want to leave the classroom ( a problem that the availability of technology in the classroom hopefully helps to remove for us now). Once I had spent a few minutes showing her how to use the software, Anna happily worked through her reading independently and with confidence. After scoring her typed assessment, Anna's classroom teacher confirmed that she had scored a "high level 2", which would basically put her around the C+ range - almost a B-. Now, I understand that we don't regularly pat ourselves on the back over "almost a B-", but in this case we're talking about a student who was suddenly assessed at grade level, even though her individual education plan suggested significant modifications were necessary, and was able to demonstrate an understanding that was very much on par with her grade level peers.
When she was given the right tools, Anna could work through the grade 8 curriculum; her IEP was most certainly an underestimation of her abilities. In this case, technology clearly helped us to know our learner and we, of course, responded to our new understanding of Anna's learning profile by making access to technology a regular part of her program (not as easy in our school five or six years ago as it is today). Working with Anna taught me that we must understand the needs of our learners in order to address them: effective use of digital tools helps us do both!
Besides Kurzweil, tools like Texthelp Read and Write Gold are excellent text-to-speech tools that many school boards are now making available to all learners. Texthelp, in particular, is an excellent tool that Anna didn't have the chance to use because we simply didn't have the software yet - more on Texthelp next time.